Taming management by measurement

If you’ve heard the saying “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” then you’re probably aware of how deeply that is entrenched in change management, both in the process improvement and software development spaces. You’ve probably seen things such as:  

  • # of lines of code as a measure of productivity
  • # of “requirements identified” as a measure of depth of analysis
  • # of test scripts as a measure the “testability” of the product
  • documentation checklists
  • mandatory documents, mandatory processes, mandatory approvals, mandatory reporting, etc.

The troubling aspect of management by measurement is that unchecked it can easily lead to what I term “overkill by measurement”.

In the past 5 years, I can think of at least 6 projects where there has been a significant uptick in the number of documents required to pass through “phase gates” or to clear “project hygiene exercises”. Now, I am not saying that some of these items aren’t required or even useful, but I have actually seen the focus for project teams shift from doing the right change at the right time with the best quality to making sure all the boxes have been checked.

Even worse, I have actually seen delays that have been associated with documentation/checklist requirements because project teams need to “prove” value and productivity based on reports and metrics even though it doesn’t necessarily match up with real value and productivity. When the conversations have shifted from the actual project goals and benefits to majority stakeholder management, process over product, presentations over delivery, it’s a warning sign.

So, how do we solve this? Do we release the floodgates and stop trying to measure these things and create process around it or do we accept the inevitable and just slog along?

Neither. The solution starts with 3 things:

  1. Open dialogue between the project teams tasked with execution and the PMO function tasked with developing good project processes, standardized reporting, and performing health checks.
  2. Right-sized management by measurement because it is not one size fits all.
  3. A commitment by management to successful delivery of projects over the successful delivery of reports. This is a culture item and it needs to be driven and supported at the highest levels of the organization.

What are your thoughts on keeping management by measurement in check? What’s worked for your organizations and your teams? Let’s start that dialogue.


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